Bakuchiol Is the Retinol Alternative Delivering Mirror-Finish Skin, Minus the Burn

Photo: Getty/Maskot

Lounging in a locker room recently, fresh from the sauna and applying my post-gym skin-care routine, a curious yoga instructor approached me asking: “What’s the single product you’d recommend for my skin?” She admitted she was totally out of the loop in the beauty world, and was merely interested in a one-and-done cure. Stunned at the opportunity to actually talk about my passion, before I could breathe a word a passerby shouted: “Retinol! It’s all you need!” and began to regale her with tales of its youthful promises.

I wondered to myself if I would ever choose the popular prescription-turned-over-the-counter vitamin-A derivative as my go-to complexion solution. Yes, many beauties like my former Vogue coworker Amanda Rodriguez, whose porcelain skin was as luminous as it was blemish-free, swore by its powers. But it was hard for me to forget a summer walk after trying out a new retinol-infused facial oil. With approximately 30 minutes of sun exposure under a generous layer of physical sunscreen, I procured a hyperpigmentation mustache that I could only attribute to the exact ingredient I’d been avoiding since high school, when it turned my acneic skin into a shallow scab.

I caught wind of Ole Henriksen’s new skin-care launch with a retinol alternative the founder had stumbled across in India, a vegan plant extract called “bakuchiol” (which has become so buzzy, it's even one of the 2019 Well+Good Trends) derived from the leaves and seeds of the Ayurvedic babchi herbal plant. So, I scooted over to the Madison Avenue hotel where they’d stationed their Los Angeles spa team (which touts an A-list roster with clients like Charlize Theron, Naomi Campbell, and Halle Berry) to perform dreamy facials with the new products. Henriksen, on site and energy levels at 100 percent, explained to me that his clients had complained to him for years about retinol’s “many” side-effects, like “dry, flaky, irritated, red, and extremely sun-sensitive skin". While collagen stimulation and increased cell-turnover are great perks of these vitamin-A derivatives, the downsides have many shrugging it off.

For the past several years, Henriksen's team made it their mission to search the globe for an ingredient that nixed the “negative baggage,” and bakuchiol had presented a refreshing solution. “What we quickly learned, and clinical studies proved, is that bakuchiol brings the power of retinoids to everyone safely, without any of the negative side effects. He also noted bakuchiol’s “retinol-active benefits” including measured claims that it “improves skin brightness, helps to even skin tone including discoloration and dark spots, strengthens collagen, resulting in visibly firmer skin (meaning fewer fine lines), reduces appearance of open pores, and improves texture and smoothness.”

I was soon led into a private suite where my aesthetician cleansed and steamed my face, then applied a bakuchiol-spiked Transform Plus Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum ($58) and Sleeping Crème ($55), its lemon sugar scent smelling faintly like a holiday, and I felt only the slightest tingle. Something about the lavender shade of the formula was immediately illuminating—so flattering, in fact, that I packed both products in my suitcase, carrying them back to Chicago for further inspection.

Fully intrigued by this Ayurvedic discovery, I started noticing that bakuchiol was popping up as a key player in a slew of cool clean and science-based brands, like Alpyn Beauty's Plantgenius Melt Moisturizer ($60), Lovinah Goddess Glow Brightening Balm ($95), ISDIN Melatonik ($150), Omorovicza’s Miracle Facial Oil ($120), and Clarity MD Pore Cleanser ($18). In search of further enlightenment, I reached out to Alpyn Beauty’s founder Kendra Kolb Butler, who’d worked in the New York City beauty industry for 15 years before starting her own wildcrafted line, for a second take on the buzzy new ingredient.

“Throughout the formulation process for Alpyn Beauty, I was either pregnant or breastfeeding and I had to be able to personally test everything,” she shared. “I knew I wanted the ingredient list to be ‘scrubbed clean,’ but the products had to also really perform (and be able to compete in a clinical space). A hard-hitting, results-oriented, bio-available retinol was important to me and the data on bakuchiol blew me away.”

As a final testimony, Lovinah’s founder Joy Ekhator was similarly swayed by bakuchiol’s ability to address all forms of problematic skin, including breakouts. “Clinical studies have shown it has powerful broad spectrum anti-aging, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory benefits that are highly effective in targeting acne and other skin problems without the negative side effects of drying and UV-sensitivity seen in retinol,” she explained.

Now confident in the rave reviews that continued to roll, I started applying bakuchiol-infused creams (specifically those purple-hued Ole gems) daily, and quickly noticed that my skin smoothed to a mirror-like finish I’d yet to experience. Weeks later, scraping the inside corners of those empty product containers serves as my quiet-yet-enthusiastic review.

And BTW: If you use bakuchiol, here's how much of each product to put on your face and this is what's up with the world of customizable beauty.

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